After slow start to season filled with high expectations, Milwaukee feeling healthy, confident after thrilling double-OT victory
POSTED: Nov 15, 2015 12:03 PM ET
It was late, they had just gone 58 minutes against the world's best player and the East's best team and the Milwaukee Bucks who still were around were in no hurry to go home.
Highlights of their double-overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday were playing over the TVs mounted throughout their dressing room, and six or seven of the Bucks stopped what they were doing -- dressing, talking, lotionizing, texting -- to watch. No whooping, no swagger. But a whole lot of widescreen HD smiles.
"I mean, it was really a great team effort, man," said guard Greivis Vasquez, whose 3-pointer off Jerryd Bayless' drive-and-kick with 1:53 left in the second extra period put Milwaukee up 106-102, sufficient points to win. "This was a confidence win for us. This is something that we need to build from."
This was a confidence win for us. This is something that we need to build from.
– Bucks guard Jerryd Bayless
Vasquez had done enough whooping and swaggering to last the weekend after hitting that shot. The key for the young Bucks now is how long the bump lasts from a stirring victory full of teachable moments. Delighted by the former, they need to stay diligent in cleaning up the latter if they're going to spoil the conventional wisdom that this will be a one-step-backward season before they take another stride forward.
"Hopefully a lot," Bayless said, when asked about the prospect of carryover from Saturday's performance. "We need it right now. We need to figure it out."
It is a lot to expect still more improvement on top of the 26-game improvement Milwaukee made last season, climbing to .500 and a playoff berth after the 15-victory, Jabari Parker-tankathon of 2013-14. They had come back streaky, losing their first three, winning four, then losing two more before facing their first serious test against a top-tier opponent. Their defense, fourth best in the NBA last season, looked unnervingly porous and they were giving up rebounds at an alarming rate, losing on the boards eight times in their first nine.
Against the Cavs, Milwaukee at least stayed close in rebounds, 54-51, and had a 15-14 edge on the offensive glass. It held Cleveland to 40.7 percent shooting, despite giving up 11-for-21 in the fourth quarter and squandering an 11-point lead over the final 6:33 of regulation.
The Cavaliers were blaming themselves -- along with referee Marc Davis, whose inadvertent whistle with 7.4 seconds left in regulation they saw as a contributing factor.
Playing with a substitute starting backcourt, Mo Williams plugged in for injured Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith doing the same for Iman Shumpert, and coming off an eight-game winning streak was no excuse for indulging what, in LeBron James' mind, has become a bad habit.
"We're not a great team right now," James said. "We're a good team but we have to improve on a lot of things in order for us to get better and play at a high level every night. ... And we don't do that. We give a half-assed effort sometimes and expect that we can just make a run at the end."
That looked like it might be plenty after Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out with 3:15 left in the second OT. To that point, the young forward's length hadn't exactly stopped James (a season-best 37 points) but it had demanded the Cleveland star's attention and adjustments -- or not, when he tried to hoist a game-winner over the Greek Freak at the end of the first overtime.
We're not a great team right now. We're a good team but we have to improve on a lot of things in order for us to get better and play at a high level every night.
– LeBron James
Once Antetokounmpo was lost, Bucks coach Jason Kidd stuck Bayless on James. Giving up five inches and 50 pounds, the veteran guard tried to be a pest and burn up shot clock when James had the ball. So what happened? James did not score over the final 3:15.
"I thought he was going to be super-aggressive," Bayless said. "He was aggressive in the fourth -- that's his time -- and in overtime. So I was expecting it and just trying to make it tough, along with the whole team to make it tough on him."
Including lulling him into shooting over the top, with that unobstructed vista of the rim. "That's the plan, that's what you try to do," Bayless said. "Try to put a lot of pressure on him to have to make quick decisions. That's the biggest thing."
Said Bucks center Greg Monroe: "Anybody checking him is asking a lot. We don't ever play, no matter who it is but especially LeBron, it's never one person guarding any player. We rely on our team defense. Yes, [Bayless is] on the ball. Yes, he has to do as much as he can. But he knows he's got four other guys ready to help him, if anything happens."
The Bucks got some good results from what figures to increasingly be their defensive trademark: long, grabby wingspans to snag errant passes or provide a thicket against interior shots. They had their preferred starting five -- Monroe, Antetokounmpo, Parker, Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams -- for the first time this season, and it showed up in Cleveland's shooting struggle and its 21 turnovers, worth 26 points to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo and John Henson blocked three shots each, while Middleton and Carter-Williams combined for five steals.
Even Parker, still flaking off rust on a minutes leash in his recovery from last December's ACL blowout, looks more comfortable at the defensive end (though it was a couple jaw-dropping dunks that made the highlights Saturday).
"I have confidence in what I need to do," Parker said. "I'm getting there on time. It's not like I'm making those mistakes I made last year, being out of place and giving up easy scores. Now I feel like I'm at the right place at the right time."
The Bucks hope they're headed there as well.
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